In his 2000 book, Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany, which was named one of the 25 Books to Remember by the New York Public Library, Jonathan Petropoulos laid bare the motives of the thoughtful, educated, artistic men and women who went to work for Hitler “repatriating” to Nazi Germany artwork from across Europe.
Now in Royals and the Reich: The Princes Von Hessen in Nazi Germany, Petropoulos tells the fascinating story of the relationship between German royalty and the rise of the Nazi Party. Last week, we had a chance to ask him about his new book.
How important was German royalty to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party?
German princes and princesses played important roles in helping Hitler come to power, although to be fair, among the 270 royals whom I identified as members of the National Socialist Party, the majority joined after the Nazi seizure of power in January 1933. Still, prominent princes like Prince August Wilhelm von Preussen (a son of the ex-Kaiser), Prince Josias zu Waldeck und Pyrmont, and Prince Philipp von Hessen helped Hitler fairly early on in significant ways. First, by joining the Nazi Party, they helped legitimate it. Hitler and his cohort were sometimes viewed as uncouth upstarts; for the traditional ruling elite to give their backing to the Nazi Party sent a powerful message in class-conscious Germany. The royals helped make Hitler appear respectable. Second, the princes helped with fund-raising. It was not so much that they themselves made hefty donations, but they helped cultivate the support of other wealthy backers. For example, Prince Philipp and Prince August Wilhelm agreed to attend small, intimate parties at the Berlin home of Hermann Goering attended by individuals like industrialist Fritz Thyssen. The princes added sparkle to these Nazi Party fundraising functions. Ultimately, they were key members of what I call “Nazi high society”: a social elite comprised of the older feudal caste and the new Nazi elite. They mingled at balls, dinners, and many other public venues and helped create what one historian has called “the beautiful veneer of the Third Reich.”
But didn’t the German royalty hate Hitler and try to assassinate him with a bomb in 1944?
The princely-Nazi alliance did not hold up under the strains of war. More specifically, once the Germans suffered military defeats in late-1942 and 1943, Hitler and many other Nazi leaders became mistrustful of the princes (“internationally connected men,” as they sometimes called them). Hitler questioned whether the princes would be loyal to Germany, or whether they would succumb to entreaties from foreign family relations. I conclude that despite increasing mutual mistrust, it was the Nazis who first turned on the princes. Prince Philipp and Princess Mafalda von Hessen, for example, were sent to concentration camps in September 1943—well before the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt undertaken by Count von Stauffenberg. In the wake of the aristocrat-led assassination attempt in July 1944, the Nazis expanded their attacks to the point that they waged a kind of class war. Hundreds of aristocrats (many of them princes) ended up in camps. But they turned on the aristocrats first, and not the other way around.
Yes, for many aristocrats, especially after 1944, one can speak about an antipathy that grew into hate. But events late in the war should not obscure the fact that there were about ten years of cooperation and cordial relations. A myth emerged in the postwar period that most aristocrats were “good Germans” (cultured, anti-Nazis who often sacrificed themselves for their country). This myth has obscured the important early support many aristocrats provided the Nazis.
Why have historians overlooked the role of German royalty in this crucial part of history?
The myth mentioned above—the one that grew out of Count von Stauffenberg’s failed assassination plot in July 1944—is one key reason why historians have not understood the importance of aristocratic support for the Nazis. In the post-World War II period, many Germans actively propagated this myth because it was useful. They could point to “good Germans” during this dark time. It helped in the construction of what historian Charles Maier has called “a useable past.” A second key reason concerns access to archival documents. The key records were in denazification files and in the archives of princely families. Both were long closed to scholars. Indeed, the Princes von Hessen are the first princely family to open their records on the Nazi period to an outside researcher. Even then, they did not give me access to everything. I was not free to rummage through their papers. But they did share a significant quantity of private correspondence and worked with me in good faith. Their support exceeds that given to a scholar by any other princely family by a wide margin.
You interviewed many royals, both in Germany and Great Britain, for this book. What was that like? How do they feel about their ancestors’ relationship with the Nazis?
Royals, like most aristocrats, care deeply about their family history. Most are raised with a special appreciation for history (perhaps understandable when so many grow up proximate to castles, artworks, and other historical objects). This interest in history often manifests itself in a remarkable knowledge of genealogy (they understand lineages and inter-relationships in ways that would astonish most people). Princes and Princesses, I think, also feel protective about their families. They are caretakers of a kind of inheritance that they don’t want to harm. Most royals have actively cultivated relationships with members of their extended family (to be a cousin is usually regarded as a significant and close relation). Therefore, princes and princesses also don’t want to cause difficulties for living family members. For example, as people spoke with me about the subjects examined in Royals and the Reich, I sensed a concern for HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. In certain cases, princes and princesses would not speak on the record (but only as “background” sources). They exhibited concern that the Duke of Edinburgh’s brothers-in-law, most of whom were members of the Nazi Party, could cause difficulties for him.
Yet this generation of royals, I believe, is prepared to confront this often difficult past. They have enough distance from the Third Reich to be able to explore this history. This wasn’t always the case—especially for individuals who lived through the era. Prince Philipp von Hessen, for example, tried to tape-record his memories back in the 1970s, but it was too painful and difficult and he abandoned the project. I commend HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, for his willingness to speak with me about his German relations. He spoke openly with me for over an hour, and has sent a follow-up note concerning the family and National Socialism. He impressed me as engaging seriously with this history. The same can said for Prince Moritz von Hessen and his cousin, Rainer von Hessen, the sons of the two main figures in this book. While exhibiting some signs of apprehension, their engagement with this history is honest and serious.
As a closing note, I must confess that interviewing HRH, Duke of Edinburgh, at Buckingham Palace in March 2004 was a singular experience. Despite having been raised in Pacific Palisades, California (where many movie stars live), and feeling fairly comfortable when dealing with famous people, there was something different about meeting His Royal Highness at the Palace. The grand setting, the solicitous but protective staff, and well, his somewhat imposing countenance, initially proved intimidating. Yet once we settled in and began discussing history, it was very enjoyable and rewarding. I came away with a positive impression of the Duke of Edinburgh. True, he probably didn’t tell me everything he knows, but as another prince said to me, “why should he?” The fact is, he made a good faith effort and talked seriously about this challenging history.